A tree has a trunk, a plant has leaves, and for decades, I left it at that until I decided to plant trees. I had the usual reasons: fear from seeing forests in flames and streams in drought from climate change, fear of losing the world’s beauty, which I myopically defined as birds, fish, wildlife. But not flora. Not trees. Having now planted hundreds of trees and other flora, I can say that planting trees was easy. Seeing trees was hard. Even harder was seeing that trees are a small part of what I’m planting in the place I call home.

Walking in my backyard garden amid laurels and magnolia, which even I knew were out of place for western Washington, I understood a tree was a plant with woody tissue. A tree can be deciduous, which means it loses its leaves at the end of the growing season (typically fall in the temperate world but during the dry season in the tropics, which I learn from later reading). Or it can be a conifer, which means it has seed cones, and often, but not always, is evergreen. (More reading.) Trees have only one trunk, as opposed to multi-stemmed bushes. This book-based knowledge, gathered by strangers over the centuries, was of little help with my in-the-forest floral short-sightedness.

Because to me, a yellow cedar looks like a western red cedar, and because a western red cedar is not so easily distinguished from an incense cedar by examining the seed cones, and because salmonberry doesn’t look all that different from black raspberry, nor sticky currant from red flowering currant, and because I can always identify a Douglas fir (if I find the seed cones), and because reading floral keys is only slightly less confusing then deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics in the days before the Rosetta Stone, usually I looked for birds and left Pojar and Mackinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest gathering dust atop my bookshelf.

When planting at a city forest, suburban park, or other restoration site, I’d encounter forest stewards or volunteers with more botanical knowledge than I have. (It wasn’t hard to find these people.) My question was simple: “What is this?” Their replies were cryptic: “Look at the buds.” (Alternate or not, whatever that meant.) Or “Is the bark smooth?” (Is any bark smooth?) I scribbled notes hoping to create a personal library of plant lore. Once home, I’d puzzle over abbreviated words on muddy pages, hoping to recall enough to shape a story to be read another day. To be fair, deciduous trees in winter are hard to identify, but a winter planting meant the trees went in the ground when flora was dormant and the rains (hopefully) abundant. But dormancy also meant twigs and limbs were in wait, leaves hadn’t emerged, flowers were a hope for next spring, and where others could see cascara from twinberry, all I saw was a stem in black dirt in a black bucket that looked like any other stem in black dirt in a black bucket.

Rooted as they are in the past, trees turn toward the community they have now, and the world to come.

But my difficulties weren’t simply seasonal or experiential. James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler’s classic definition of plant blindness describes me all too well, namely as having “the inability to see or notice plants in one’s own environment,” which in turn creates “an inability” to understand how important plants are to life on earth, and therefore to humans, not to mention general oversight of the “aesthetic and unique biological features” of flora, and “the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration.”

Blindness implies a physical inability to see. But is the issue a physiological difference or a psychological indifference? Studies have shown (that deadly phrase) that when people view images of flora and fauna in rapid sequence, we pay attention to and remember animals far more than plants. (There’s the question as to whether we don’t see plants, or we see animals more.) Humans see what matters to them. Plants often don’t. While girls tend to be more interested in plants than boys, most youth (and presumably the adults they become) are more interested in animals because animals are more like us: they move, eat, often have human-like eyes, faces or appendages, give birth, raise young, and sometimes play with us. There are other reasons, too, more related to plant nature than human nature.

Plants hide in plain sight. Being immobile, plants need to attract bees and other pollinators to reproduce, but they also need to be inconspicuous to herbivores. Seasonal flowering, with its bursts of smells and colors, attracts pollinators, while seasonal dormancy lets individual plants blend in with the plants around them, creating a floral herd that reduces the chances of predation on any one plant.

I see this survival strategy as a green blur on the landscape, whether as small as my suburban garden or as vast as a mountainside, a static image that requires interest and effort to identify sword fern from maidenhair fern from lady fern. Why bother? Some plants sting, some cause rashes, some are poisonous, but none are going to hunt me down for dinner. While flora may be a staple of horror (think Day of the Triffids), a predatory kwanza cherry tree doesn’t lurk in my garden. But there’s another reason for plant indifference, at least where trees are concerned. A tree isn’t in a forest; a forest is in a tree. I see a tree trunk easily enough. Massive, rooted, comforting in what persists across seasons, years, decades, centuries, and deeper into history. To walk amid what might be western hemlock in my backyard is, I’ve read, to walk atop an underground network of roots laced with mycorrhizal fungi, a symbiotic relationship where trees provide carbohydrates and fungi provide water and soil nutrients. Through that network trees share carbon and other resources, and seedlings are nourished. Rooted as they are in the past, trees turn toward the community they have now, and the world to come.

In The Nation of Plants, botanist Stefano Mancuso writes “Plants are what make Earth the planet we know. Without them, our planet would very much resemble the images we have of Mars or Venus: a sterile ball of rock.” Plants, or more specifically the chloroplasts in their leaf cells, are the bridge between our world and our sun. Chloroplasts make it possible for plants to absorb solar energy— sunlight—and convert it to chemical energy—sugar—with oxygen as the resulting waste product. Oxygen for breathing, corn and barley and much more for eating, wood for paper and books, and boards for building, and an endless list of gifts, from fabrics to dyes, to be grateful for, and all thanks to the plants.

We know this. And yet, we (or I) ignore it. I’m slowly opening my eyes to see that to be plant indifferent is to ignore a daily miracle of life, one seen by the strangers who lived here before me, and the strangers who will live here after me.

This neighborhood of single-family homes with Free Little Libraries was once a rainfall-nourished bog, most likely written into the landscape by the retreat of glacial ice.

There’s a straight line of sun-starved western red cedar along my garden’s south border. What dispute with a neighbor was too large for the trees to restrain, necessitating a fence of rain-rotted wood and cat tunnels? Even in my small backyard, stories are written in Oregon grape and English ivy as one era took root alongside another. But perhaps every garden is its own library, stands of knowledge for those who open seed cone, turn over leaf, and read the history blooming here, if one notices.

My garden was once a plant nursery. When the business failed in the 1970s, the owners sold to a condo developer with the stipulation that the family house and its immediate landscape remain intact. The widow lived here for years and bequeathed the house to a wayward son, as if the family home was a diary to be read for remembering better days. The son, so the story goes, re-mortgaged the house, ignored taxes, initiated lawsuits, fled to the Southwest, and died.

We’ve found remnants of a beloved place. In the southwest corner, laurels tower over a woodshed shattered to dust, rusty nails, spider webs. We cleared a path through fallen branches and sawed off low-hanging boughs. From the gloom emerged alders laced with woodpecker holes. We hauled single-shot booze bottles, belt buckles, shoes, and broken pottery out of English ivy to uncover a stone-walled pond filled with dirt and laurel shoots, and a broken bench beside a rain-rotted bird feeder atop a tilting metal pole that had been hidden beneath Himalayan blackberry that we cut and tore and piled on the walkway alongside the English ivy. But once, this was a family’s place of rest and wonder. And before that?

If I leave my garden and walk east along a four-lane arterial past an elementary school, past a bus kiosk memorializing the life and murder of Edwin Pratt, a local civil rights leader, and past statues of prancing ponies, then just before the Interstate 5 entrance ramp, I would come to Ronald Bog Park, once a wetland mined for peat in the 1930s. Mining ended some thirty years later. What was left of the wetlands were to be filled and made into suburban homes. In the early 1970s, local women, dismissively called the “kitchen table activists,” advocated for preservation before the County Council, building on support from the local Audubon Society, educators, school children, and others. Ronald Bog Park, named after a local judge for reasons clear to no one, is now an arboretum of firs and cedar, sequoia and spruce, with grass, goose shit, fluffy-feathered goslings, and gravel trails, a refuge for coyotes and encampments for the homeless.

Landscapes change, and species with them, and the people living there. Sometimes, something remains. Here in my backyard, scattered sets of salal struggle against grass, and amid Spanish bluebell and daffodils, I find what I think is trailing blackberry, a native plant. My backyard, and this neighborhood of single-family homes with Free Little Libraries by driveways, was once a rainfall-nourished bog, most likely written into the landscape by the retreat of glacial ice some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago to later become a crossing ground rich in flora gathered by local Coast Salish indigenous communities migrating to and from what’s now called Puget Sound to Lake Washington. Prior to European contact, and still today, Puget Sound is home to Duwamish, Suquamish, Puyallup, Muckleshoot, and many other tribes (listed by their contemporary names) who spoke variants of Lushootseed. Years and centuries and lives ago, an indigenous woman would have carried her child through a fen that’s now my lawn. She would have gathered trailing blackberry, bog cranberry, salmonberry. She would have burned shrubs or other undergrowth to foster flora desired for food and medicine, or small game to hunt. She would have known gratitude for life in such a beautiful place. At least, I hope she did. She would have had her own worries for the future. (Who doesn’t?) Was she alive when the first white settlers reached Puget Sound? She’s of the past, but like the plants, her descendants live here still despite broken (or non-existent) treaties, introduced diseases, and forced displacement; they defend their rights and help shape the future of this beloved place. But could she have imagined a future so different from the abundant world she knew?

In the slight page of my garden’s history book, I write a brief note with every Shukshan strawberry planted for summer salads, every rosemary and lavender planted for pollinators, every primrose and Persian violet planted for joy. I plant salal under the cedars and Oregon grape near yet another plant I (still) don’t know. It’s low to the ground, with twists and whorls of bright green, pointy leaves. With upwards of 300,000 flowering plants in the world, I’ll never know them all. I can’t honestly say I’ll ever come to see even a reasonable number of them, either, amid the false-forget-me-nots I’ve learned to notice. But what’s a future without some unexpected glimpse of beauty and the joy it brings? What’s a future, anyway, if not a realm of possibilities, a few certainties, a place worthy of hope? And the Pacific crabapple and vine maples, the cascara and grand firs, even the flora I don’t (yet) have names for that I’m planting in parks and along trails? Those are letters written to someone else’s future, which is a history I won’t live to see.

One day, someone will sit on a bench under a Japanese maple and never know I planted it with the ashes of a son who was wanted but died in utero. Just as I will never know what beloved creature’s ashes were wrapped in a plastic bag and buried in a box only to be accidentally dug up when I planted the maple. I reburied the crematory amid innumerable weeds I can’t name, Himalayan blackberry, and Garry oak.

Reaching out to rest my hand on that oak, I remember stories of a forest planted thousands of miles away. I’ve never found a citation, but the story rings true. Centuries ago, an English university built a library, with trees felled to give weathered refuge to books written and ones yet to be imagined. Those long-dead librarians must have trusted there would be a future where curiosity would blossom, and beams would rot. And so, a forest was planted so that there would be trees to build a new library.

One day, someone else will walk my garden of madrone and magnolia, cedar and cypress. Will that distant stranger almost walk past, but stop, place hand against bark, watch sunlight shift in leaves, wonder why this tree grew in this place? What matters, the names or the noticing? Perhaps even asking is another sign of my plant indifference. At the risk of being horribly anthropocentric (or only human), I trust that stranger will let curiosity root, will learn about the people who cared for this beloved place through the centuries of a tree’s life, and one day, will plant a new tree for someone else’s future.

Adrienne Ross Scanlan is the author of Turning Homeward: Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild, a 2017 Washington State Book Award Finalist.

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

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